Last month in Guadalajara, Mexico, Elon Musk, a former graduate student in physics and founder of the space exploration company SpaceX, made headlines with a daring plan: to put human beings on Mars as early as 2024. Musk’s vision is not of a small handful of astronauts or astrotourists taking a short walk on Mars’s surface. Rather, he sees Mars as the future home of a self-sustaining human colony.
At times Musk’s presentation to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) felt like the opening scene of a science fiction movie—a comparison that he would probably not dislike. Indeed, SpaceX’s work has been littered with references to science fiction. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket is a nod to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. And at the IAC Musk suggested that the first SpaceX ship to Mars might be named Heart of Gold, after the ship in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Those works, however, imagine travel between stars and planets far from the Milky Way. How has science fiction envisioned space exploration closer to home, especially as advances in spaceflight have made human travel to Mars seem almost within our reach?
Mars as utopia and refuge
In the late 19th century, astronomical observations of Mars led to intense speculation about whether its surface might harbor life. American astronomer Percival Lowell even built an observatory in Arizona to get a closer look at what he believed were artificially constructed Martian canals. Although most astronomers agreed that there was little evidence for life on Mars, the idea of a Martian race quickly took hold in fiction.
Many of the first science fiction novels about Mars described travelers to the Red Planet who encountered not merely life forms, but utopian civilizations. In A Plunge into Space (1890), Irishman Robert Cromie envisions a Martian society in which air travel is common and society has evolved beyond the need for politicians. In their novel Unveiling a Parallel (1893), Iowa feminists Alice Jones and Ella Merchant send their protagonist to two egalitarian societies on Mars—one in which women and men are equally promiscuous and violent and another in which equality of the sexes has resulted in a scientifically and philosophically advanced utopia.
The most famous English-language science fiction novel of the late 19th century, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), imagines a significantly less peaceful encounter between humans and Martians. The book’s unnamed English narrator first reads about possible activity on Mars in Nature. Weeks later, he finds himself fleeing for his life as tentacled Martians kill or imprison his fellow humans. Only a humble bacterial infection saves humanity from total defeat. At the end of the novel, the narrator muses that humans, too, might travel beyond their planet one day—but they will have to contend with the surviving Martians if they do:
If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out. . . . It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
Wells’s vision of humans traveling to other planets to escape a crisis on Earth became a staple of mid-20th-century science fiction. Once again, Mars proved a popular destination. In several novels, including Red Planet (1949), avowedly libertarian author Robert Heinlein imagines political discontent as a motivation for Martian settlement—and for eventual rebellion from Earth authorities. Ray Bradbury’s celebrated short story collection The Martian Chronicles (1950) describes humanity fleeing a coming nuclear war and encountering telepathic Martians. The collection also deals with life on war-torn Earth; perhaps the most famous story in The Martian Chronicles is “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which tells of a mechanized California house carrying on its work after its occupants die in a nuclear blast. Nuclear disaster also prompts the creation of Martian colonies in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). However, the colonists—and the androids they build—find Mars so desolate that many sneak back to Earth illegally.
The scientific challenges of Mars
Advances in space science during and after the Cold War have seemed to bring a human landing on Mars closer and closer to reality. In the 1960s NASA’s Mariner program successfully executed a series of Mars flybys that garnered the agency increasingly clear images of the planet. In 1975 NASA successfully landed Viking 1 and Viking 2 on Mars’s surface (see the article by Ichtiaque Rasool, Donald Hunten, and William Kaula, Physics Today, July 1977, page 23). Further missions to Mars have only become more ambitious. The celebrated Mars rovers, including Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, have mapped Mars’s surface, sampled its soil and rocks, and helped scientists assess whether the planet was habitable in the past.
As scientists learn more about Mars’s geology and atmosphere, novelists have increasingly focused on the scientific and technological requirements for putting humans on the planet. Some of the most celebrated contemporary authors of Martian fiction have backgrounds in science or engineering. The most popular example is The Martian (2011), the debut novel by computer engineer Andy Weir, which chronicles the struggles and adventures of an astronaut accidentally left for dead on Mars’s surface. Weir’s remarkable attention to the science of survival on a hostile planet earned praise (and a few critiques) from my colleague Paul Guinnessy, who reviewed both the book and its film adaptation.
The Martian focuses on living on Mars as it is. In contrast, Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed Mars Trilogy imagines a centuries-long scientific effort to terraform the planet to support human life. Red Mars (1993), the first book in the trilogy, focuses on the scientific challenges of remaking an entire planet, from the geological to the psychological. Scientific problems are not the only ones Robinson’s characters face: Conflict soon arises over whether Mars should be terraformed at all or whether it should be preserved in its natural desert state.
Science fiction has the unique ability to pose “what-if” questions about scientific and technological developments and to reflect on how those developments might affect human society. Each wave of Mars fiction has evolved alongside new knowledge of the Red Planet and has also raised questions related to the social concerns and political controversies of the day. Nineteenth-century Martian novels also served as commentaries on Victorian culture. In 20th-century fiction, colonies on Mars function as both a bastion of hope for humanity’s future and a sign that something has gone terribly wrong on Earth. Dick and Bradbury were implicitly condemning the casual use of nuclear weapons when they imagined humans fleeing to another planet. Robinson’s work explores the possible effect humans might have on Mars while reminding the reader that humans are already altering Earth.
Musk’s plan for colonizing Mars within the next century is reminiscent of many of the novels about humans living on the Red Planet. In a recent interview, Robinson suggested that Musk modernize his sci-fi-inspired vision: “Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.” Perhaps as SpaceX hones its Mars settlement plan Musk should reread the Mars Trilogy along with The Martian, which depicted a human living on Mars with 21st-century technology.
If Musk’s ambitious plan succeeds, new takes on Mars in science fiction novels and movies will likely arise—along with new questions about what the achievement will mean for humanity.
Melinda Baldwin is the Books editor at Physics Today. She realizes that she probably left your favorite Mars-based novel out of this article and encourages you to recommend it in the comments.